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Why the 'Interfaith Movement' Must Rebrand

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We've Got A Brand Problem

If I ask you what the human rights, civil rights or environmental movements are about, you likely can give a semi-coherent description that sounds something like what your neighbor might say if we asked her as well. The interfaith relations movement, on the other hand, has no defined brand. (Some people working squarely within the movement actually even giggle a bit when I try to even use the term "interfaith movement.")

It's a fluid network of people and organizations working to advance tolerance, understanding and genuine respect for the religious "other" (plural) and the positive appropriation of religious diversity. It has emerging centers and hubs in NGOs, academia and the foundation world. In the U.S., it has some leading luminaries like Eboo Patel, Diana Eck, Welton Gaddy and Bill Vendley, to name just a few that I have learned from. It has also has less visible architects like Lynn Szwaja, Philip Clayton, Jennifer Peace and Heidi Hadsell. But overall it lacks definition and gravity and falls short of being a "movement."

So what is wrong? Because the need for a movement for religious cooperation has never been greater. It appears we've got a brand problem. It's the name, stupid.

What Do You Call It?

Speaking about social change, Cheryl Heller recently said, "If it is true, as has been said, that all change begins with language, then it is equally true that the inability to change begins with language as well."

If the movement for religious cooperation, as we might call it, wants to get out of the mud, it has to address its serious name problem. "Interfaith" is such a plastic word that it doesn't mean much of anything. The word is used by people with distinct faiths engaging with others of distinct faiths (what we more technically call "interreligious" in the field). The word is also used by the "spiritual but not religious" set and those with "multi-spiritual" or "multi-religious" identities. Few understand this fact yet, but for the latter there are even "interfaith" ministers and interfaith "churches" where people who concurrently hold multiple affiliations can find community with the same. (I say "concurrently" so as not to confuse, because according to Pew Forum approaching one half of all people in the US change their religious affiliation during at least one point in their life).

The problem is that some of the folks -- all using the same word, "interfaith," mind you -- don't want to be caught dead with the others. Not a very nice thing for a bunch of folks who are supposed to be spiritual or religious, is it? Most often it is the single faith/institution folks not wishing to congregate with the multiple-affiliation folks, because it challenges the integrity of the boundaries, authority, and truth claims that they hold dear.

In short, some folks think we are all following different paths up the same mountain to essentially the same peak. Others think that, while we might all be on paths, those paths are certainly not the same and the mountains are quite distinct.

This tension is situated in the competing assumptions about the meaning and place of sacred texts, traditions, and histories of traditions and their relationships with that of others. Not everybody can bracket (or not, as it may be) the truth claims of their own tradition(s) in the same way as others. And these truth claims in religious talk are about the very core of the meaning and purpose of life. The labels we choose, therefore, carry more gravity, more hidden assumptions than what appears on the surface.

Add to this the whopping 20 percent of the American population that is now categorized as "nones and nons" -- folks who are religiously very independent (even to the point of not having any faith) or who aren't "faithed" but are somewhere in the blender of things that is labeled "interfaith." Or, in contrast, add the wide swath of Christian Evangelicals for whom "interfaith" is the simply the shorthand way that you talk about positioning your Christian faith for marketing to those of other faiths, and, well, you've got some serious confusion as to what we are talking about when we say "interfaith."

Something Has To Give

Terms like multifaith, multireligious, intrafaith, interfaith and inter-religious each have nuanced technical meanings in the field (that is, if you believe there is one). But that is a useless fact to the average ear. Those words too often appear everyday in print as though they were synonyms. They are not. We need a way out.

People should have a right to identify themselves as they wish, as long as it is not offensive. Self description is a matter of justice. Since we can't ask one group to start using a new term -- like "intra-spiritual," "multi-spiritual," or the like -- I think we may need to cede the term "interfaith" to the small but growing number of people who see faith, religion and spirituality as boundary-less enterprises of exploration and who allow for multiple affiliations. And the more narrow technical term "interreligious" needs to be co-opted to cover the broad arc of things that are multi-, inter- and intra- for -faith, -religious and - spiritual. I wish there was a more satisfactory solution, and perhaps there will be soon with some new things on the horizon.

A Turning Point

We are at a turning point in the "interfaith movement." Focused non-profit organizations, contributing foundations and academic centers are well formed enough now that they are going to give shape to the movement and its public nomenclature going forward.

Eck famously demarcated "religious pluralism" as the positive appropriation of the fact of religious diversity and championed it in the academy and in public fora. Today, finally, the American Academy of Religion has formally recognized what has become increasingly unavoidable: the legitimacy of interfaith and interreligious studies as a work area, an idea Eck championed as its president several years ago. Rather interestingly, this year the AAR will focus on religious pluralism and include a new group, the Interreligious and Interfaith Studies Group. Another such sign is the fact that that the Association of Theological Schools passed in the last year an accreditation requirement that seminaries and theological schools, in effect, need to account for how they are preparing their leaders to deal with the religious "other."

Some of the conversations in November in Baltimore at the AAR will begin to answer the many questions about "what do you call it?" Though the term coining is likely to come from the field itself, the massaging and refining may happen in the academy. And the job of branding and positioning is one for all of us.

Religion, faith and spirituality are sensitive conversational material. In America, we privatize our religious experience and hold as sacrosanct our rights to have whatever belief we wish, in interest of protecting everyone's beliefs. The subject matter -- like politics -- is even seen by many as taboo in polite conversation. But at the same time, we need to have tools to speak publicly about our religion, faith and spirituality in constructive ways that reduce tensions and build social cohesion. This will require getting us beyond our silos and language fumbling.

It starts with exposures and experiences with and education about the religious "other." It is advanced by some generally common understandings about what is labeled what. Language is integral to social change. And religious cooperation or interfaith relations will not advance as a field without dissipating some of the current linguistic beclouding.

So what do we call it when two people constructively engage with one another about religion, faith or spirituality? As for me, for now, I will just call it "progress."

Some further treatment on meaning of the words in this essay is found in opening chapter of 'InterActive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook' (Skylight Paths, 2008).